KWAJALEIN, Marshall Islands--My wife has a phrase she likes to use when we're going to a family function, a special occasion of any sort, and of course, when we go on vacation.

She likes to say, "Let's go make a memory."

We just returned Saturday from a quick two-week vacation in the Sacramento area of California. From that short period, I think I have memories which will last a long time.

If you will indulge me, I'd like to relate a few of those experiences to you.

In the course of getting from Honolulu to Sacramento, we had to go through Los Angeles International Airport. As we waited for our flight, I went to get a cup of coffee. Standing in line in front of me was a young Soldier. He looked to be about 25 or so. He was wearing a battle dress uniform and carried a heavy sack. We began talking and I asked him where he was headed. He said he was on his way to Iraq - for his fifth tour.

When his turn came to be waited on, I paid for his coffee and some overpriced pastry. He looked at me and said, "Thank you, sir."

That young man was going back for the fifth time to a place that must be hell on earth and he was thanking me for a simple cup of coffee and a Danish.

My voice caught a little as I told him to take care and come home safe.

I went one way to catch my plane and he went the other way to catch his. I looked back to watch him walk away and then he turned and waved to me. Yes - I'll remember that young Soldier for a long time.

When we arrived in Sacramento, we borrowed a car from my in-laws. Do you believe it - they had the audacity to make us buy the gas. I mean, the nerve of some people.

Anyway, I pulled the car into the local gas station and pumped $20 worth. Being the penny pincher that I am, I chose the cheap regular unleaded.

When I was finished I looked at the meter and thought it was broken. It said I had pumped less than five gallons I wondered how that could be. Then I looked at the price.

It was $4.19 per gallon for that 'cheap' regular unleaded gasoline. Holy smokes.

While we were driving around the area, we noticed very affluent looking neighborhoods. Many of the houses were decked out with foreclosure and for sale signs in the front yards. We were told that houses selling for $500,000 a year ago would be lucky to get $300,000 today. Those signs really are, as the saying goes, 'signs of the times.'

Kwajalein was definitely looking better and better.

We drove with family members to a little town called Nevada City and stayed overnight in an old 1800s hotel that might have had some ghosts in it. At least, it smelled like it did. I think the bed I was in was the original one some old prospector slept in. I just hope he didn't die in it - or anything else.

After waking up with backaches and smelling very unappetizing odors from the hotel kitchen, we got on the highway and headed back to home base in Sacramento.

We were driving on the interstate in the far left lane when we noticed some vehicles ahead of us moving slowly in the far right lane. They had their four-way flashers on and were decorated with red, white and blue ribbons. On all of the back windows was written, 'Welcome home Cess.'

As we drove on, the line of cars, pickups and vans kept coming into view. There must have been 50 vehicles, all with flashers going and all with that same message on the back windows.

We came alongside a car that had several young Soldiers in it and in front of that car were two fire trucks.

Then we saw it. A larger fire truck bearing a flag-draped coffin. We realized we were watching a funeral procession.

But the most amazing sight was yet to come. In front of the fire truck were motorcycles. There must have been at least 100 of them. They all flew large American flags. The riders were veterans from various veterans organizations. The line of cycles seemed to stretch for miles.

Then I recalled reading in the local paper about a firefighter who was also a reservist. He was killed in Iraq and I figured it was him all those people were welcoming home.

The motorcycle riders were motioning for cars to move over to the left lane so as not to break the funeral line in the right lane.

I could tell some drivers were annoyed until they realized what was going by them and then they courteously moved over.

That funeral procession with all those vehicles, motorcycles, American flags and a flag-draped coffin on a fire truck isn't something I think I'll forget anytime soon.

It was indeed a real 'welcome home' for a man named Cess.

Our time in California came to an end and we flew back to Honolulu. We have some friends who were staying at the Hale Koa military hotel and we went to say hello.

As we stood in the lobby, a young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties walked into the lobby.

He was on prostestic legs and they were state-of-the-art technology. He moved fairly well, but it was obvious he was still getting used to them. As he came closer to where we were standing, I could see that a good portion of his left arm was missing as if it had been torn away by a jagged edge.

As he went by me, he smiled and said, "Good morning."

I couldn't help but think that if I was that young man and I had left my legs somewhere in Iraq, the last thing I'd be saying to anyone would be good morning or anything else that had the word good in it. I wondered if I would have ever had that kind of strength and character.

So those are my vacation memories this year. A young Soldier who thanked me for a cup of coffee and waved goodbye to me as if I was an old friend.

A flag-draped coffin riding on a fire truck, American flags flying in the wind and hundreds of people welcoming a Soldier home.

A young man who, with two simple words, had shown more courage and honor than I could ever hope to have.

Yeah, I know. They're not the usual vacation memories, but maybe like the foreclosures in those front yards, they are indeed signs of the times.